HARLINGEN — In a long, blue tent popping out of Valley Baptist Medical Center, Dr. Christopher Romero helps screen residents for the coronavirus.

Long before COVID-19 made its way to the United States, Romero was planning the hospital’s local response.

As part of its plan, Valley Baptist set up the air-conditioned isolation tent to screen residents before they enter the hospital to prevent spreading the virus to patients and staff.

“Before anyone enters the building, they’re screened for any signs and symptoms as well as exposure to COVID-19,” said Romero, an internal medicine specialist who serves as the hospital’s physician advisor.

“We have been screening everyone that enters the building for any signs or symptoms of COVID-19 as well as travel or exposure, and we’re measuring temperatures of staff and employees who enter,” he said. “If they meet the criteria and are high risk for COVID-19, they’re referred to the isolation tent.”

Cameron County Health Department officials help the hospital determine whether residents should be tested for the virus, Esmeralda Guajardo, the county’s health administrator, said.

“If they have an individual who needs to be tested, they communicate with my department,” she said. “The health authority will determine if someone needs to be tested in collaboration with a hospital physician and my staff.”

About two weeks ago, Valley Baptist set up the isolation tent next to its emergency room.

“The emergency department is one area of high risk of exposure to COVID-19,” Romero said. “This is where a lot of patients actually ill are admitted. We had (the isolation tent) up and running before the first (virus) case was identified in Cameron County.”

Dr. Michael Mohun, the city of Harlingen’s newly appointed health authority, praised the hospital’s triage system.

“That’s quite appropriate,” Mohun, who helps city officials handle matters including quarantine questions, said. “I think most medical facilities are doing that to prevent contamination and to screen people who may not have the disease.”

Valley Baptist Medical Center in Harlingen has set up a triage at the ambulance bay area of the facility. (VBMC/COURTESY PHOTO)

Testing for COVID-19

Meanwhile, Guajardo stressed the isolation tent doesn’t serve as a test center for residents who believe they might have contracted the virus.

Residents who want to be tested for the virus should call their doctor or a public health clinic, she said.

“Just because Valley Baptist has the tent and triage system does not mean anyone can walk in and be tested. The last thing we need to do is run down the medical system,” Guajardo said.

“The tent is an avenue the hospital has to prevent people from walking into the emergency room if they suspect they may have been in contact. It’s a proactive method,” she said. “People should be calling their physicians to determine what course of action to take. A person cannot get tested without (a doctor’s) order.”

Public health clinics strained

Residents who don’t have a doctor could contact a public heath clinic if they want to be tested for the virus, Guajardo said.

But the area’s public health clinics, strained serving their big case loads, have limited supplies to test residents for the virus.

“We have very limited supplies, screening kits and (related) equipment,” Dr. Elena Marin, chief executive officer of Su Clinica in Harlingen, said. “At this point, we just don’t have the capacity. We can (conduct tests) on a case-by-case basis. We’re trying to help as many people as we can.”

For questions about testing, residents can call the county health department’s hotline at 956-247-3650.